In my time as a small-time software developer and IT professional, I have a long-standing love for open source software. The term “open source” is often used as a replacement term for “free,” and indeed that is how I became aware of open source. I was just starting out, didn’t have much money, and wanted to use software; I learned that I could often find free software by searching for open source alternatives to popular commercial software packages.
It wasn’t until later that I became aware of the more important sense of free, open source software through the Richard Stallman’s concept of copyleft–“a general method for making a program (or other work) free (in the sense of freedom, not ‘zero price’), and requiring all modified and extended versions of the program to be free as well.” It is not an exaggeration to say that this concept–perhaps more than any other–has revolutionized the software development world and had a significant influence in other realms as well.
Copyleft uses the structure of the copyright system (a license) to ensure that software can be freely used, studied, distributed, and adapted. Works in the public domain can be adapted and then released as closed source; however, under copyleft, those modified versions have to remain open source under the terms of the license. If this sounds like to a Creative Commons Share-Alike license, that’s because Lessig based it on the work of Stallman and others in the Free Software Movement and provided a mechanism to apply the concept to other types of works.
Open source software is incalculable in its effects–the chances are good that the device you are reading this on is built on an open source framework (this includes Chromebook, Android, iOS, macOS). This website, like the vast majority of websites, is hosted on a Linux-based server. It uses an open source content management system, WordPress, which is built using the open source language PHP and open source MySQL database. The ability for software developers to take existing code, take it apart, and then modify it to suit their (personal or commercial) needs is what has built so much of the technology we now enjoy and rely on.
It is this same approach that undergirds the “maker mindset” and constructionism , which is why copyright and access to information are such an important part of learning in the 21st century. Intrusive controls to copyright such as digital rights management (DRM) threaten that by giving publishers more power to limit how content is used and disallowing them from studying and remixing content to better understand it.
A proper use of copyright and digital citizenship gives great importance to the author’s ownership of their content and need for attribution but also allows for others to appreciate, learn from, and build on that work to create a more rich learning environment.